Photo: Jon Wick.

Bummer, Dude.

Yesterday, Outside editorial director Alex Heard tweeted a shot of the magazine’s new cover, and asked, “What do you think? Beautiful? Or too much?”

What do I think? I have a lot of thoughts, tangled ones, and some of them are thoughts that I worry about putting out there for fear of being labeled another tiresome, humorless, predictable woman — and then I have more thoughts about those worries, and the unfairness of having to live with them.

The cover shot is a dreamily lit photo of skier Lindsey Vonn dressed in some sort of bikini, hair blowing across her face, lips parted slightly, clutching a skipping rope while she stares into the camera. The cover lines declare her to be one of “60 Perfect Things” and “The Fastest Woman on the Planet.” This cover doesn’t make me angry. It doesn’t make me want to demand an apology from the editors and designers behind it, or to somehow force a promise from them that they won’t do something similar again. But it does… bum me out. That’s the only term for it. This cover is a bummer.

We could nitpick back and forth about the details all day. Sure, Outside ran a cover of a scantily clad male athlete, Trey Hardee, earlier this year — but Hardee, a decathlete, was posed with a javelin, in clothing that vaguely resembled what he’d actually wear in competition. There’s no indication from this month’s cover that Vonn is a skier, or any kind of competitive athlete at all. Beyond that, it should be obvious that a woman in a bikini occupies a different cultural context than a man in briefs: To argue otherwise is, frankly, to flirt with “Why isn’t there a White History Month?” territory.

But I don’t really care about the details of the image itself. What bums me out is the message it sends me. Magazine covers are marketing tools; they’re like glossy ads attached to the very products they’re selling. And, like most big-name beer ads, this cover says to me: “This product is not for you.” It’s the more subtle, grown-up equivalent of the boys who hammer a “No Girls Allowed” sign into the wall of their clubhouse. I don’t worry about the big-name beers — who wants to drink a Budweiser or a Coors Light anyway? But Outside, I care about. I love to read it, and I aspire to write for it. And this week, it makes me feel like an outsider — unwanted or irrelevant as a reader, certainly, and who knows what that says about my suitability as a writer.

Am I being touchy? Am I being…oversensitive? Maybe. If I am, it might be because I came up in the years when anorexia and bulimia were the high-profile scourge of the moment, and we were all taught that sexy magazine covers of unattainable female bodies were the reason our friends were starving themselves to death. It might be because, when my high school hockey team held a car-wash fundraiser to get ourselves to provincials, a man pulled over, rolled down his window, and told us that girls had no right to play the game. It might be because, when I first started writing for publication, a man followed me across the internet, commenting on my stories from blog to blog, asking me to send him photos of myself in a bikini. And it might be because my (male) writer friends in New York still see that man at readings and public literary gatherings, and I’ll never be able to visit the city without wondering if I’ll finally have to face him.

When Sarah founded Vela, it was to give the six of us — and our readers, and now our guest writers — a place where we didn’t have to feel like outsiders, where we weren’t left standing outside the clubhouse. This week, I am just that little bit more grateful for this space.

ps: You should read writer Peter Vigneron’s short post about the Vonn cover, too. Vigneron wrote the Vonn profile included in this issue of the magazine, and his take on the image that accompanies his story is thoughtful and sensible,.

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3 Comments

  • Julie says:

    Thanks for this, Eva. There’s so much I want to say about the Vonn cover, Outside and print mags in general, and places that I’ve written/worked for, like Matador, where the masthead is predominantly male, and I’m really glad you DID say what you wanted to say, despite concerns about how you might be perceived and if/how your likelihood of writing for Outside will change as a result.

    Male privilege is a lot like white privilege or “First World” privilege (or any kind of privilege for that matter), I think, in that it’s the *absence* of thought or conversation about how/what representation of a woman (or person of color, or, or or…) means and signifies that’s as problematic, if not more so, than the representation itself. It would be really interesting to me to read a take from Vonn herself about how (and by whom) the cover shot was proposed and how it was framed, literally and figuratively, and what her own thoughts about that were.

  • The blog calls her "the dominatrix," somehow sexualizing her athletic prowess. Completely unnecessary.

    • Yes, and the cover seriously suggests some kind of bondage theme. She's got a wonderfully fierce look in her eyes, but they are trying as hard as possible to sexualize that fierceness.

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